(CNN) – “We came to the United States not for the American dream, we are here for the dream of the vaccine,” Elver Estela, 49, told CNN. The businessman had traveled from Peru in search of the covid-19 vaccine and received his first dose of Pfizer at a vaccination center in Seattle.
Earlier this year, Estela had decided to travel to the US, where vaccines were relatively abundant, after seeing many people close to him fall ill with coronavirus, an experience that he compared to Russian roulette. With more than 68,000 deaths attributable to covid-19 in a population of 32 million, Peru is one of the most affected countries in Latin America.
By the time Estela finally arrived in the United States during the first week of May, she learned that one of her closest co-workers had tested positive for the virus in Lima.
“I was so relieved and relieved that I will no longer play Russian roulette,” he said of the moment a nurse in Seattle finally injected him with the vaccine.
Estela is not alone. The demand for travel from Latin American countries to the United States has increased in 2021, driven by growing interest in “vaccine tourism,” according to some travel and health experts.
Peru’s Deputy Minister of Public Health Gustavo Rosell told local media on May 18 that an estimated 70,000 Peruvians had already traveled abroad to get vaccinated.
José Ricardo Botelho, executive director of the Air Transport Association of Latin America and the Caribbean (ALTA) tells CNN that a recent increase in trips originating in Latin America and the Caribbean and destined for the US is likely to is related to vaccine tourism.
“For reference, in 2019, trips to North America accounted for 77% of trips outside the region. In March 2021 these trips reached 87%, an increase closely related to the significant number of ‘vaccine’ tourists who go to the US to receive their dose, ”Botelho said in a statement to CNN.
As a region, Latin America is desperately short of covid-19 vaccines. Although more than 400 million doses of the covid-19 vaccine have been administered in the Americas, most of them have been in the United States, the director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) told reporters, Carissa Etienne, on May 19.
“In fact, only 3% of Latin Americans have been fully vaccinated against covid-19 and we still have a long way to go to make sure everyone is protected,” he said.
For Etienne, vaccine tourism is not a solution but “a symptom of the inequality in the distribution of vaccines in the Americas.”
Latin American and Caribbean countries have received more than 12 million doses through the WHO-backed Covax initiative as of May 21, but the program is experiencing delays in shipping what is already a limited number of vaccines, according to PAHO officials.
Go where the vaccine is
Travelers interviewed by CNN said they were not asked for proof of US residency at vaccination centers and some of them showed their identity cards or national passports. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that “jurisdictions cannot add United States citizenship requirements or require verification of United States citizenship as a condition for vaccination.”
Going one step further, New York City has opened mobile vaccination sites close to city attractions. “We are creating mobile vaccination opportunities for tourists in some of New York City’s busiest areas, the places that tourists love to go and look at. I think this is part of the welcome back to New York City, we want everyone to be safe, ”Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters on May 11.
“If the vaccine does not reach you, it is time to go for the vaccine,” another Peruvian, Flavio San Martín, told CNN. Flavio, a business consultant, traveled to Durham, North Carolina, with his family on April 13 and received two doses of Moderna’s vaccine.
«I am 46 years old and I did not think that I could be vaccinated in my country before December. I have seen people die closer and closer to my home, ”said San Martín.
Pamela Card, a 37-year-old Mexican, says she doesn’t want to wait any longer to be eligible for a vaccine in her home country. “The safety of our family is more important. With the vaccine we can feel safe and less panicky, “he adds.
Card says she was vaccinated over a long weekend in Miami, along with nine other friends. Each was able to get online appointments to receive the J&J vaccine at a pharmacy.
“You have to fill out a simple form, they asked me for identification to confirm the name, I showed my Mexican national ID and that was it,” says Card.
Both Mexico and Peru have been greatly affected by the pandemic. Mexico has exceeded 2,399,790 cases of covid-19, followed by Peru with more than 1,932,255 cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
And although Mexico has fully vaccinated just over 9% of its population, Peru is far behind, with just over 3% of its population fully vaccinated according to the CNN vaccine tracker.
“We did calculations with my family and realized that we would have to wait a long time for my mother’s turn and mine,” says 28-year-old Adriana Díaz. She and her 49-year-old mother traveled from Mexico to Atlanta, where they await their second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
“I am incredibly grateful to the United States government because they are allowing people to get vaccinated here,” says Diaz.
For those who can afford it, the cost of an international flight and accommodation is all that is needed to get vaccinated.
Flights from the Peruvian capital, Lima, to the United States are fully booked until June, according to Ricardo Acosta, president of the Association of Travel and Tourism Agencies of Peru. Demand is only expected to increase due to vaccine tourism, it adds.
The number of people traveling from Peru to the US has quadrupled since February, Acosta said, from 10,000 in February to 40,780 in April.
Flight costs have also increased. The average price of a budget ticket from Lima to Miami at this time of year was between $ 500 and $ 700, according to Acosta. These days, prices start as low as $ 1,200 and can even go as high as $ 4,500, he says. In normal years, the peak season for travel between Peru and the United States is usually July.
The Card flight from Mexico City to Miami costs around 10,000 Mexican pesos (US $ 500) for four days, including accommodation. She says the trip was not as expensive as she expected, but it is still out of reach for many Mexicans. “Not everyone can do it … with the 10,000 Mexican pesos I paid, a family in Mexico can buy food for a month,” he adds.
“We are seeing that vaccine tourism is something real and very frequent. And as inequality in the distribution of vaccines continues around the world, vaccine tourism will continue to increase, “says Ernesto Ortiz, senior manager of the Institute for Global Health at Duke University, which oversees the distribution of vaccines around the world. .
At the Seattle vaccination center, Estela said she felt very well received. The fact that he was not a US citizen did not seem to matter, he said.
“They were all very nice and friendly there and when one of them realized that I was Latin American, he told me: ‘You and your family can come and get vaccinated, here we have vaccines.’ Those words meant everything to me, ”he said.
While Estela awaits her second dose in late May, his wife Úrsula and their 18-year-old daughter Ariana have joined him in Seattle. They opted for a Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“I felt protected, knowing that I can return to my country and feel safe, still taking all the precautions but safe,” says Úrsula, describing the moment she received her vaccine.
Like many of those interviewed by CNN, he said his own vaccine tourism would help slow the spread of the coronavirus and allow someone else at home to take their place in line.
“We are helping to stop the spread of the virus in our country; more vaccinated people will help reduce transmission levels, “he said.
“The dream of the vaccine also means an extra vaccine for someone who needs it in my country … if I can save another life by taking this trip, it is worth more than the economic cost,” added her husband.
Over time, other destinations may also become an option for Latin American travelers looking to speed up their vaccine treatments.
In Russia, the creators of Sputnik V proposed a vaccination program for foreigners on Twitter: “Sputnik V vaccination in Russia! Who is on board?
To be clear, this was not an April Fools joke. We are working to start this program in July, ”the Sputnik V vaccine Twitter account also said.
Closer to home is Cuba, which is currently developing its own covid-19 vaccine with two candidates in its final three phase of clinical trials. If all goes well, Cuban health officials hope to vaccinate most of the population by late summer and have floated the idea of boosting the local tourism industry by offering “vaccination vacations” to visitors.
Meanwhile, a trip to the US to obtain a vaccine is an option for citizens of countries where the coronavirus is not yet controlled.
“If you have the opportunity to do it, it is crazy not to do it … The virus is surrounding us,” says San Martín.
CNNE’s Jimena De la Quintana contributed to this report from Lima.